Vaping: what are the health risks of 'black market' vapes - as high lead and nickel content revealed

With people under the age of 18 unable to legally buy vapes or e-cigarettes in the UK, some students are turning to riskier, unregulated products

"Black market" vapes confiscated from students at one UK secondary school were shown to have high levels of heavy metals, which could pose serious health risks to young people unable to buy legal, regulated e-cigarettes.

The BBC reports new lab tests have revealed the majority of vapes confiscated from students at Baxter College in Kidderminster were illegal and unregulated, and contained high levels of lead, nickel and chromium - and some had higher levels of dangerous carbonyls than some cigarettes.

Calls for greater regulation on legal vapes and a crackdown on unregulated one have increased in recent years as the government has attempted to strike a balance between promoting the products as a tool to quit smoking and cracking down on young people vaping - a growing problem, with the risk of youngsters becoming addicted to nicotine in the products.

Data from NHS Digital revealed that the number of young people vaping had increased, with 9% of secondary school pupils aged 11 to 15 currently - either regularly or occasionally - using e-cigarettes in 2021. This was an increase from 6% in 2018.

A 2022 Action on Smoking and Health survey found a similar trend. The survey showed a sharp increase in vaping among 11 to 17 year olds, from 4% in 2020 - before the first coronavirus lockdown - to 7% in 2022.

With people under the age of 18 unable to legally buy vapes or e-cigarettes, many are turning to riskier, unregulated products. But what health risks do they pose, and what is the government doing about it?

Lab tests have shown vapes confiscated from school students were mostly illegal, and had high levels of lead, nickel and chromium (Photo: NationalWorld/Adobe Stock)Lab tests have shown vapes confiscated from school students were mostly illegal, and had high levels of lead, nickel and chromium (Photo: NationalWorld/Adobe Stock)
Lab tests have shown vapes confiscated from school students were mostly illegal, and had high levels of lead, nickel and chromium (Photo: NationalWorld/Adobe Stock)

What risks do these 'black market' vapes pose?

Eighteen used vapes, confiscated from students at Baxter College in Kidderminster, were tested in a laboratory, which found that "highlighter vapes" - neon-bright devices designed to look like highlighter pens - contained more than double the safe exposure level of lead, nearly 7 times the safe exposure level of chromium, and almost 10 times the safe exposure level of nickel, the BBC reported.

The lab tests also showed the metals were not just coming from the heating element, but were in the e-liquid itself.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), lead exposure is particularly damaging to children. It can affect brain development, resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioural changes such as reduced attention span and increased antisocial behaviour. Physically, lead exposure can also cause anaemia, hypertension, kidney disease, and impact the immune system.

There is no safe level of lead, and the effects are thought to be irreversible, the WHO says. The UK government has warned inhaled chromium particles can remain in the lungs for a long time, causing respiratory difficulties, and conditions like bronchitis or asthma - while inhaling high levels of nickel can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and respiratory irritation.

It can also cause more serious - sometimes fatal - symptoms in extreme doses, and is believed to be a carcinogen.

Some vapes also contained harmful chemicals like those in cigarette smoke, the BBC said. The lab tests found compounds called carbonyls - which break down when heated in the vape into chemicals such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde - at 10 times the level in legal vapes. Some even had higher levels than cigarettes.

Inter Scientific laboratory co-founder David Lawson told the BBC these were the worst set of results he had ever seen. "In 15 years of testing, I have never seen lead in a device... None of these should be on the market - they break all the rules on permitted levels of metal."

What do Britons who vape think about the health risks of vaping?

On the streets, Ethan told NationalWorld - the risk of addiction aside - he thought it could be safer than smoking, but that there had not been enough research on the effects.

"But obviously there's stuff like popcorn lung... which I haven't really seen much of yet. I think it might be safer the smoking, but I don't think it's safe," he said.

The number of UK children who regularly vape is rising. Credit: Alexey - stock.adobe.comThe number of UK children who regularly vape is rising. Credit: Alexey -
The number of UK children who regularly vape is rising. Credit: Alexey -

Popcorn lung is a condition caused by a build-up of scar tissue in the lungs, which has potential links to diacetyl - a compound in some e-cigarettes - but Cancer Research UK says more research is needed to confirm the link.

Ethan said he vapes himself, after having smoked cigarettes from a young age. "I moved to vaping to quit smoking," he said. He felt better about the ingredients in vapes, compared to inhaling tar from cigarettes.

Caitlyn told NationalWorld she thought vaping was harmful because of the amount of nicotine in products. "I don't think anyone should be vaping, but I think people vape due to stress - or there [are] people that vape due to other people vaping."

She also vaped herself, "due to stress and depression". She found it helped her feel less stressed and anxious while she was out and about.

What is the government doing to regulate the vape market?

The rapid rise in popularity of e-cigarettes in recent years has yet to be addressed through comprehensive legislation, leaving aspects of the market unregulated. While the industry has been supportive of some calls to introduce further regulations, lobbyists are thought to be pushing for a lighter touch.

The government opened a consultation this month on youth vaping, calling for evidence on ways to reduce the number of children using the products without acting as a barrier to their continued application as an aid to stop smoking.

Politico reported earlier this year that the government was considering plans to tax vaping products and impose stricter regulation on packaging, marketing and flavours, in response to an independent report on making England smoke-free by 2030. There has been no suggestion of an outright ban from the Westminster government.

Last month, public health minister Neil O’Brien announced a crackdown on the sale of vaping products to under-18s while committing to hand out vape kits to a million smokers to help them quit.

In Scotland, where the devolved government has the power to prevent the manufacture and sale of disposable vaping products but could not prevent them from entering the country via England, a government review will consider an outright ban.

The UK vaping industry, which is thought to be worth more than a billion pounds and growing, has two primary industry representative organisations. Both are engaged in lobbying the UK government. The UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), which represents a number of small firms as well as the ‘big four’ international tobacco companies, is a client of Conservative-linked consultant lobbyist JBP associates, and has previously supported the work of the APPG on vaping.

The relationship between UKVIA and the APPG prompted the committee for standards in public life to call for a review of the rules around APPGs in 2018. The industry body stopped providing secretariat services to the APPG in late 2019.

The UKVIA recently lashed out at the Scottish Greens, after the party’s health spokesperson called for supermarkets to “act responsibly” and voluntarily remove flavoured vape products from view, over concerns that they are particularly popular among young people.

UKVIA Director General John Dunne said the proposal “would be a huge backward and nonsensical step” and argued that “flavours play a critical role in helping adult smokers quit their habits through vaping”.

In the last year, three Conservative MPs have accepted hospitality from a major tobacco company which is increasingly pivoting toward the vape market - Japan Tobacco International (JTI).

Nigel Adams was given two tickets with hospitality to a concert at the O2 arena in April, worth £500. Craig Mackinlay and David Morris were both given two tickets and hospitality to a Queen concert at the O2 last June, worth £360 each.

Conservative MP Adam Afriyie was criticised earlier this month after i News revealed that he had encouraged the government to back vaping as a key part of its anti-smoking policy, without declaring his wife’s interest in a firm which sells disposable vapes.

Afriyie is a vice chair of the APPG on Vaping and has spoken in the commons several times about the benefits of vaping. He is also unpaid chair of the advisory board to Elite Growth, a medical cannabis firm which sells disposable vapes - both CBD and nicotine-based - and his wife is one of the company’s largest shareholders, with a five percent stake.

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